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prelude.
Baked. The fresh strawberries I bought are sprawled across the floor. The base from the speaker vibrates throughout the room as one of Veora’s favorite songs begins to play:

“Forbidden knowledge can destroy mankind”

Knowledge, knowledge production, ethics and Black people.

or via Black people.

Black people as the center point by which I will consider these things.

And.

Black people as the vehicle through which knowledge has been found, produced, and disseminated, as well as the ethics that surround this production.

After sitting and talking awhile, Veora’s favorite song had me thinking. What is forbidden knowledge?

Here’s what I pulled from wikipedia:

Raury Deshawn Tullis (born June 10, 1996), professionally known by the mononym Raury, is an American singer and songwriter from Atlanta, Georgia.[1] He is known for his eclectic sound mixing soul, hip hop and folk.

This song in particular, Forbidden Knowledge, recently struck me after having listened to it about a million times.

Forbidden Knowledge is about exactly what it says: forbidden knowledge. Or knowledges to be more specific. Throughout the song, Raury contemplates different forms/types/topics of knowledge. In the first few lines he starts pretty broadly:

I don’t believe we share this universal space alone
I think we got a lot from them, they gave us phones
Internet and now we all know what is forbidden knowledge

As Raury sits alone, much in the same way I was when I was muling over his music, he considers the possibility

nay!

argues that we are not the only form of life in the universe and these extraterrestrial beings probably gave us the technology to have cellphones and the internet. Conspiracy, no? This isn't that uncommon of a “conspiracy” as many might think, but Raury is doing something more. He is inviting us to rethink some of our assumed notions about the things around us: how did humans develop cellphones?

A little farfetched? Ok. One might even ask “so what, who cares”?

But there’s more to it.

There is another aspect to this knowledge. Its forbidden knowledge.

Tabooed, sanctioned, hidden, stolen.

Not only does Raury consider different types of knowledge, but the different ways in which knowledge can be hidden, why its hidden, and the ethical considerations surrounding this access to knowledge.

Raury continues:

Forbidden knowledge is too great for a man
Think if man could read your mind, you think that man understands
How to use it with integrity, not conquering land
Would it be good if we increased the lifespan, well that’s forbidden knowledge

Although they may seem science fiction-y, within just 6 lines Raury asks us to consider some serious ethical fault lines around mind reading, imperialism, and prolonged life. In this instance, the knowlege on how to read someone’s mind and increase human life expectancy is hidden from us because we may not be able to use this information with integrity. Raury then begins to list the ways we, as human beings, can misuse this knowlege in distructive ways:

Forbidden knowledge can destroy mankind
We can grow out of control like cancer under the skin of Mother Nature
Busy cities much alike to a tumor
Too many cells, the residents, the body’s pollutor

But wait, there’s more!

Raury effortlessly pivots from seemingly broader issues to something that concerns his target audience more specifically: Black people.

I say woosah and alley-oop the chubby doobie to Judah
Child of Jacob, I know my history, I know we are Moors
There’s a universe in her afro, hold us back though
There’s a power in the black folk, well that’s forbidden knowledge

This verse is particularly relevant given that its finally Black history month once again. For Black folks, history has been a continual point of contention for many people as we feel that we have, and still are, robbed of our history. Many non-Black people point to Black history month as a means to assuage this gap in history by containing all of the amazing, complex, dynamic, and fantastic things Black people have done into a single month. This discrepancy in access to information concerning our past and present is symptomatic of structural racism (i.e. school to prison pipeline, poor educational facilities in predominantly Black areas) and has been voiced through movements like #MoreThanAMonth.

Little Rock Nine 1957

Anyways,

Raury spits bars about the rich history of Black folks but that this history is forbidden. In this instance, the forbidden knowledge is not in an effort to save humanity from itself, but as a means to hold Black people back. Raury is not saying that Black people simply don’t know their own history, but argues that this was intentional.

From here, Raury reflects on the systemic trauma Black folks have endured, drops a couple of existential crises here and there, and closes with a vague memory/nightmare/movie (?) of being operated on in a lab.

This last part has always struck me as interesting, but some reflection and a couple more puffs I now understand it differently.

Raury seamlessly ties back his operation experience back to his opening sci-fi-esc theme and another untold aspect of black history: experimentation. People like Noah Berlatsky andJohn Rieder have made note that “The link between colonialism and science-fiction is every bit as old as the link between science-fiction and the future.” Typical motifs of science-fiction, particularly early pieces, allude constantly to colonial histories and situations: alien invasions, evil empires, authoritarian dystopia, and new lands discovered and pacified.

The motif concerning alien invasion and subsequent experimentation is relevant particularly to Black folks as we have had a long history of nonconsensual experimentations for the sake of science or medicine. This one aspect brings up a boatloads of ethical problems around consent, how knowledge is gained, reparations for survivors and many more.

With these last few lines,

I have some shocking memories as a kid
Waking up onto a table, a lab, some typa bizz
Too vivid to be a nightmare, mom would tell me that shit
Can’t remember anything that they did, guess that’s forbidden knowledge

Raury has connected issues concerning black folks, aliens, science, and ethics.


So Raury keeps doing this throughout the song. From verse to verse, he shifts his audience from Black folks to corporate america whom he argues perpetuates such violences against black people.

Big K.R.I.T, who is featured on the track, brings it back to Black people as he questions some tacit issues like the structure of predominantly Black neighborhoods, gang violence, and consumerism.

So who put the liquor store across the street from the gun shop?
And the park a hop skip in the dark ‘way from the gunshots
That rang out in the neighborhood where the youth’s misunderstood
Fighting over concrete squares but the laws just ain’t no good

And again, Big K.R.I.T. argues that systemic racism is intentional:

I think their agenda’s meant to kill us all

and again,

I think they laughin’ at us, cause while we’re watchin’ some cable
They was talkin’ ‘bout the economy, sharecroppers and stables
How to keep the horse runnin’ his course, give him some blinders

Finally, Big K.R.I.T gives us the honor of closing out Forbidden Knowledge with

Brother, look, you don’t need to go to jail just to read you a book
I wonder what Malcolm found after goin’ to Mecca
Or the mindstate of Martin after visitin’ Selma
Two leaders that were slain for speakin’ the topic
On the schemers and the reapers of forbidden knowledge

At first, I was wondering “why would Big K.R.I.T. close with such a morbid ending?”

Like, damn! We get it. The world is fucked up, humans are imperialists, our minds are colonized, and the few leaders who spoke up were killed. What am I supposed to do with this information?

Well, I think Raury and Big K.R.I.T. also had some intentionality behind this closure. They are making us confront two things:

  1. They are forcing us to confront the seriousness of access to knowledge and information. Who has it? how it is produces? And the ramifications of restricting/widening access to it? Through their work as civil rights leaders, MLK and Malcolm X gave a larger audience of people access to previously restricted or muddled information and were arguably killed for it.
  2. However, spreading knowledge and doing the work to question social norms is powerful and can create WHOLE MOVEMENTS.
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